‘King Arthur’ is looking sharp
Despite director’s cliches, ‘Legend’ still entertains
Director Guy Ritchie puts 21st century spin on old legend
Make no mistake: "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" is a superhero origin story.
To be sure, it's an attempt not to reinvent the well-worn wheel of Arthurian legend, but to retrofit it into a vehicle fueled by a crew of laddish, Cockney-accented wouldbe knights, straight off the streets of Londinium. (It's by iconoclast Guy Ritchie, who remade Sherlock Holmes into an action hero. How could it not be?) But this first of six — yes, six — planned films feels more like a page ripped from Marvel Comics than Sir Thomas Malory.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Opening with a pitched battle between the forces of King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), the father of the boy-prince Arthur, and the army of the evil sorcerer Mordred (Rob Knighton), the film includes many a visual delight. Among "Arthur's" eye-candy treats are giant, wrecking-ball-swinging battle-elephants; freaky underwater creatures — including the traditional Lady of the Lake (Jacqui Ainsley) and a "Syren" with tentacles and the body of an obese woman (Lorraine Bruce); and Ritchie's now-signature fight sequences, shot in high speed and featuring a hipster hash of slow-mo, fast-mo and freeze-frame. It's a kinetic — even chaotic — and, mostly, thrilling mess.
So what if the movie disrespects the past, to a large degree? It's sufficiently dutiful to observe just enough of the niceties of Arthurian myth, even as it tweaks, to the point of breaking, many others. As the main plot gets underway, the nowgrown Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), orphaned by his father's murderous brother Vortigern (Jude Law) and raised in a brothel, has just pulled his father's sword Excalibur out of the stone it's been frozen in since Daddy's death, fulfilling the prophesy that only the "born king" can handle the magic weapon, and unseat his usurping uncle.
This sets in motion a grass-roots rebellion narrative in which the fugitive Arthur teams up with an underground resistance movement led by Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and an unnamed female wizard (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and manned by a ragtag cadre of street toughs with nicknames like Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Back Lack (Neil Maskell) and Goose Fat (Aidan Gillen). If Ritchie wants to throw in a martial-arts trainer anachronistically called Kung Fu George (Tom Wu), let him. It's his story, not yours.
The performances are mostly perfunctory, in the manner of chess pieces, save for Law's enjoyably malevolent turn as a man who will stop at nothing — and I do mean nothing — to preserve his tenuous grip on the crown. Although there are scenes of shocking cruelty, mostly involving Law's character, Ritchie always pulls his camera away at the bloodiest moments, rending the PG-13 barbarity more theoretical.
As for the story (by Ritchie, Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold): Although "King Arthur" hews to the skeletal framework of the ancient legend its subtitle alludes to — a lore that's loose enough, in its various permutations, to accommodate even former soccer star David Beckham, in a cameo as one of Vortigern's palace thugs — the plot seems overly dictated, at times, by the logic of video games, not real human behavior or emotion. There are moments, for instance, when Arthur's actions feel like he's trying to level-up his fighting ability by, say, undergoing artificial trials in a forest populated by a menagerie of fantastical beasts, or focusing too much on the magical tower that Vortigern is building, rather than saving the lives of the people that his uncle is off murdering somewhere else.
But such quibbles are irrelevant. "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" is a fun, if sacrilegious, first step in a franchise creation — one that observes the first commandment of storytelling: Thou shalt not be boring.